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​Cervical Cancer Screening

Regular cervical screening can prevent cervical cancer by identifying abnormal cell changes in the cervix that could lead to cancer if untreated. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major cause of the main types of cervical cancer. However, not all cervical cancers are caused by viral infections. A Pap test and an HPV test are used to screen for cervical cancer.

When should I get a cervical screening?

Which testing you should have, and how often, depends on your age and health history:

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:
  • Women aged 21–29 years should have a Pap test alone every three years. (HPV testing is not recommended)
  • Women aged 30–65 years should have a Pap test and an HPV test every five years. 
  • Women age 65 and older should stop having cervical cancer screening unless they have a history of abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer. 
If you get a Pap test together with an HPV test, it’s called co-testing, which is the preferred way to detect early cervical cancers or pre-cancers in women age 30 and older.

What is a Pap test?

A Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, is the traditional test for cervical cancer. It looks for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix that suggest cervical cancer could develop. Typically, Pap tests are done in the doctor’s office often during a pelvic exam.

For the procedure, you lie on the exam table with your feet in the stirrup-style footrests. A device called a speculum is inserted into the vagina so your doctor can see the vaginal walls and the cervix. The doctor uses a spatula, similar to a tongue depressor, to scrape cells from the cervix. These cells are sent to the lab and examined for abnormal growth. You may feel mildly uncomfortable during the exam, but the Pap test only takes a few minutes.

What is Human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is a group of viruses linked to cancer of the cervix. Some of these viruses can cause abnormal changes in cells in the cervix. HPV viruses are common, and there's no treatment for them.

What is an HPV test?

An HPV test looks for the presence of high-risk HPV types in cervical cells and detects HPV infections that cause cell abnormalities. The test can be done using the same sample of cells taken during your Pap test or as a separate sample.

The HPV test can tell if high-risk HPV is present in your cervix. If your test is positive, the result means you have high-risk HPV and your doctor should monitor you closely. A positive HPV test result does not indicate you have cancer. 

Next steps

Speak to your OB/Gyn about testing for cervical cancer or HPV or find an OB/Gyn physician near you.